Daily mil­i­tary pre­ci­sion at Ar­ling­ton Ceme­tery

The Washington Times Weekly - - Front Page - By Karen Gold­berg Goff

Army Pfc. William Ti­mothy Dix died in Iraq in April and was buried at Ar­ling­ton Na­tional Ceme­tery on a bril­liant May af­ter­noon. He was laid to rest in sec­tion 60, where the sod is fresh and the nearby tomb- stones bear names like Justin, Bran­don and Ashly; sol­diers young enough to be named in the 1980s but old enough to die for their coun­try.

Pfc. Dix was buried with stan­dard mil­i­tary hon­ors — a lone bugler at a 45-de­gree an­gle from the cas­ket, the Old Guard with a 21-gun salute, a somber chap­lain and a three Amer­i­can flags folded crisply and uni­formly for his fam­ily.

It is a cer­e­mony that will be re­peated, in some form or an­other, 26 times that day. And the next. And the day af­ter that.

A day at Ar­ling­ton Na­tional Ceme­tery is a pro­duc­tion wor­thy of a big-bud­get Hol­ly­wood pic­ture com­bined with the pre­ci­sion of time­honored mil­i­tary code. Ev­ery 20minute grave­side ser­vice is a feat of sched­ul­ing, hor­ti­cul­ture, clean­ing, heavy ma­chine op­er­at­ing, mea­sur­ing and map­ping.

There are more than 300,000 peo-

ple buried at Ar­ling­ton. Be­cause many fam­ily mem­bers share a gravesite, that means there are more than 200,000 mar­ble head­stones that must be lined up per­fectly at all times. On any given morn­ing at sun­rise, there is a main­te­nance crew at work, see­ing where ad­just­ments need to be made us­ing a very old­school method — string­ing a red thread through the sec­tion to spot a stone list­ing by even a half-inch.

There are more than 624 acres at Ar­ling­ton. That means there are about 9,000 trees and a bil­lion or so blades of grass. The hor­ti­cul­ture di­vi­sion is charged with plant­ing and prun­ing, wa­ter­ing and weed­ing, grow­ing sod and re­mov­ing the dirt churned up to make room for the cas­kets. The goal is for the pub­lic to never see an over­grown shrub, a dead tree or flow­ers wilt­ing in the heat.

There are nearly 30 buri­als a day at Ar­ling­ton. That’s about 6,600 buri­als of vet­er­ans, their spouses and an oc­ca­sional mi­nor child an­nu­ally. That num­ber is a 20 per­cent in­crease from a few years ago, says Erik Dihle, chief of Ar­ling­ton’s hor­ti­cul­ture di­vi­sion and burial op­er­a­tions.

“Buri­als are now in­creas­ing dra­mat­i­cally,” Mr. Dihle says. “World War II vets are dy­ing at a peak rate.”

Mr. Dihle adds that buri­als of ser­vice­men and women who died in cur­rent the con­flicts in Iraq and Afghanistan make up a small per­cent­age of that num­ber — Pfc. Dix was num­ber 484. Sol­diers who die on ac­tive duty are el­i­gi­ble, of course, for mil­i­tary hon­ors at Ar­ling­ton, but many sol­diers’ fam­i­lies choose to have their loved ones buried closer to home.

“A vet­eran who served 30 years ago gets the same treat­ment as some­one who died in com­bat,” Mr. Dihle says.

Part of that treat­ment is main­tain­ing pri­vacy and re­spect for the fam­ily. With four to six fu­ner­als an hour, five days a week, the staff has pro­ce­dures in place to en­sure that buri­als will not cross paths, whether on the road through the ceme­tery or in the row of graves. Where one is buried at the ceme­tery has a lot to do with who else is sched­uled to be buried that day and what kind of hon­ors the fam­ily chooses.

A sim­ple burial can be ar­ranged in a mat­ter of days. Full mil­i­tary hon­ors, with a cais­son and horses, re­quires more per­son­nel and lo­gis­tics and is there­fore more dif­fi­cult to sched­ule, says Gina Gray, Ar­ling­ton Na­tional Ceme­tery’s di­rec­tor of pub­lic af­fairs.

The burial process at Ar­ling­ton be­gins with a phone call to the In­ter­ment Ser­vices of­fice, the nerve cen­ter of the vast park­land in a gar­den-variety of­fice.

In­ter­ment Ser­vices su­per­vi­sor Vicki Tan­ner has worked for this di­vi­sion for 36 years. The of­fice gets be­tween 50 and 150 calls a day, most of them ques­tions about el­i­gi­bil­ity. As long as a ser­vice mem­ber was hon­or­ably dis­charged, they are el­i­gi­ble for at least in­urn­ment of cre­mated re­mains in the colum­bar­ium at Ar­ling­ton, Ms. Tan­ner says. There are, of course, other re­quire­ments for higher hon­ors, ground burial and burial of spouses, among oth­ers. There is no cost to fam­i­lies for in­urn­ment or in­ter­ment.

“Very sel­dom do we turn any­one away,” Ms. Tan­ner says.

Tech­nol­ogy makes the process eas­ier. The of­fice can look up in­for­ma­tion on vet­er­ans who were re­tired on a data­base. If the vet­eran was not re­tired, hon­or­able dis­charge pa­pers must be shown, she says. If the fam­ily has no pa­pers, records still can be found at the Na­tional Per­son­nel Records Cen­ter in St. Louis. How­ever, a 1973 fire com­pro­mised the files, so some­times a small re­search job proves trick­ier than ex­pected, Ms. Tan­ner says.

Ms. Tan­ner says her of­fice has been no­tice­ably busier the last five years. Many of the calls come from the grown chil­dren of long-re­tired ser­vice­men ready to go to their fi­nal rest­ing place. That doesn’t make the calls from a young widow of an ac­tive-duty sol­dier any eas­ier, Ms. Tan­ner says.

“You see th­ese fam­i­lies with young kids,” she says. “It is re­ally tragic.”

The in­ter­ment of­fice was over­whelm­ingly busy in the days fol­low­ing Sept. 11, 2001, Ms. Tan­ner says. Amer­i­can Air­lines Flight 77 flew into the Pen­tagon prac­ti­cally in sight of the ceme­tery. Sixty-four peo­ple killed on Sept. 11 are buried at Ar­ling­ton.

“We tried to help all of them as fast as we could,” Ms. Tan­ner says. “It was one of the few times we buried on Satur­days.”

While Ms. Tan­ner re­flects on that hor­ri­ble day, mem­bers of the in­ter­ment staff are pe­rus­ing a map of the ceme­tery, mark­ing off where up­com­ing buri­als can be sched­uled with­out cross­over. The maps mark road and sec­tions, and high­light avail­able spa­ces. Un­like private ceme­ter­ies, spa­ces can­not be re­served. Grave as­sign­ments are made, with­out pref­er­ence to rank, class, gen­der or race, the day be­fore the burial.

Next year, Ar­ling­ton is sched­uled to go high-tech, es­chew­ing the printed maps for GPS tech­nol­ogy that can keep up with the need for space and a land­scape that changes daily.

Some pre­dict that the grounds will run out of space by 2060. Ms. Tan­ner says she doesn’t think that will hap­pen, es­pe­cially since the ceme­tery is sched­uled to take over nearby land even­tu­ally.

“We’ve got sec­tions in which there are no buri­als yet,” she says. “We’re get­ting a new colum­bar­ium. There will be space long af­ter I am gone, even af­ter my grand­chil­dren are gone.”

The work­day at Ar­ling­ton starts with a morn­ing meet­ing and a com­puter print­out. The print­out is the vi­tal daily doc­u­ment at the ceme­tery. It tells the staff — from gravedig­gers to chap­lains to driv­ers to the 1,300-mem­ber Old Guard — what they need to know about the day’s cer­e­monies and the prepa­ra­tion for the next day’s.

Each en­try on the doc­u­ment has the de­ceased’s name, rank and nextof-kin con­tact. It shows where the grave is, how deep it needs to be dug, whether there is al­ready some­one (such as a spouse) buried there or who some­day will be buried there. It de­tails the de­ceased’s faith and what kind of hon­ors will be tak­ing place.

“There is a lot of things you have to keep in your head,” says en­gi­neer tech Daniel Man­ning. This morn­ing he is in Sec­tion 135, ready­ing a grave. The en­gi­neer­ing staff is busy dig­ging graves, low­er­ing grav­e­lin­ers and mov­ing cas­kets as part of a day’s work among the liv­ing.

“In the be­gin­ning, you can get a lit­tle [creeped out],” Mr. Man­ning says. “But it’s a job. Peo­ple have a phys­i­cal ad­dress when liv­ing. This is their new ad­dress. It is just some­thing that goes on.”

Pfc. Dix’s burial goes off as planned, one of four that hour at var­i­ous cor­ners of the grounds. A chap­lain says a few words. Flags are pre­sented to Pfc. Dix’s par­ents and sis­ter. A mem­ber of the Ar­ling­ton Ladies — the vol­un­teer corps of women who at­tend each and ev­ery funeral at Ar­ling­ton “so no sol­dier will be buried alone,” — presents the fam­ily with a let­ter from the sec­re­tary of the Army. In the dis­tance, a baby cries and an­other guard unit files into the colum­bar­ium.

The mourn­ers leave the tem­po­rary Astro­turf area sur­round­ing the cas­ket and re­turn to their line of cars. What they don’t see: Wait­ing in a truck 100 yards away, re­spect­fully out of sight, is a crew ready to con­tinue busi­ness of dy­ing.

The crew will rig the cas­ket to a ma­chine that will lower it into the ground. They will tamp the churned dirt into the earth. Then they will roll up the Astro­turf and fold the chairs, and im­me­di­ately drive them to a dif­fer­ent sec­tion of the grounds to set up again.

Bar­bara L. Sal­is­bury / The Wash­ing­ton Times

Mem­bers of the Old Guard carry the cas­ket of Army PFC William Ti­mothy Dix to his fi­nal rest­ing place at Ar­ling­ton Na­tional Ceme­tery on May 7.

(Bar­bara L. Sal­is­bury / The Wash­ing­ton Times)

From left, James Wil­liams, Kevin Thomas and Eu­gene Barnes, all care­tak­ers at Ar­ling­ton Na­tional Ceme­tery, pull up the Astro­turf that sur­rounded the cas­ket fol­low­ing a funeral on May 7. As soon as the last fam­ily mem­ber leaves, the grounds crew comes in to lower the cas­ket into the ground and tear down the funeral setup.

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